Alice Munro’s ‘Dimension’ and the Rape of Persephone

The story of Persephone’s abduction and return is traditionally referred to as the Rape of Persephone. A potted summary:

Hades, god of the underworld, fell in love with Persephone and consulted with Zeus. Zeus advised Hades to kidnap Persephone since her mother, Demeter, would not consent to the match. Persephone was gathering flowers when Hades abducted her to the underworld. In response Demeter caused the earth to become barren until she was returned. Zeus eventually forced Hades to return Persephone to the earth but there was a catch. Anyone who ate or drank in the underworld must remain. Hades had tricked Persephone into eating four pomegranate seeds. When Demeter and Persephone were reunited the earth became fertile again but Persephone must return to the underworld for four months each year and the earth again becomes barren.

The book discussion group I attend discussed Alice Munro’s collection Too Much Happiness last Spring. The discussion sparked a number of things to think about and I ended up going home fixated on the first story in the collection, Dimension originally published in the New Yorker magazine. The keywords embedded in the New Yorker web page’s HTML for the story almost tell the story:

“Murder, Children, Marriage, Mental Illness, Buses, Ontario, Canada, Social Workers, Husbands, Prisons (Jails), Accidents, Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, Children, Wives”

I wouldn’t have seen any similarity to the Rape of Persephone except for two coincidences: Over twenty years ago I read L.R. Wright’s series of Karl Alberg mysteries, and I live in Michigan. The Alberg mysteries were moderately entertaining but their significance here is they took place in Sechelt, British Columbia on what the local tourist promotions refer to as Canada’s “Sunshine Coast.”

Although I retain almost nothing of the Alberg mysteries what has stuck with me was that there was a golden place in the rain shadow of Vancouver Island’s mountains where it was sunny. If you are a Michigander this is something you notice. In Michigan we live through winters of unending gray. We are gray connoisseurs – my favorite gray is a thick bright gray cloud cover that scatters photons in all directions so that everything is uniformly illuminated and there are no shadows. On one winter walk this particular gray taught me how much I implicitly depended on light and shadow to find my way.

The two primary characters in Dimension are Doree (AKA Fleur) and Lloyd. Doree, age 19, lived with her mother in Sechelt. Her mother was in hospital ‘for a serious but not dangerous’ condition until she unexpectedly died. Lloyd, an older man (late 30s/early 40s) was an orderly at the hospital (and I suspect caused the mother’s death. Embolisms are always just so convenient …)

When her mother died Doree was hustled from Sechelt by Lloyd to a rural life outside Mildmay, Ontario (across Lake Huron from Port Hope, Michigan and ~30 miles inland.) It shares Michigan’s lake effect cloud cover and seasonal sun light deficiency. This swift transition from sun light to gray was the first thing that brought to mind the abduction of Persephone. Doree (meaning golden), is taken by Lloyd (meaning gray, holy), from the sun lit coast into the gray. Golden is a standard epithet for Persephone, while the realm of Hades is described in Greek mythology as misty and gloomy (i.e. gray.)

Hades, usually a passive god, could be provoked to great violence when his subjects try to leave, much as Lloyd was when Doree left. Doree develops a friendship with Maggie, a fellow home-schooling mother. Lloyd dislikes Maggie and as their friendship develops verbally abuses Doree so much that she leaves and goes to Maggie’s house to get some peace. When Maggie brings Doree back to the house the next morning Lloyd has killed their three children.

Lloyd goes to prison and Doree goes into something like a disassociative fugue state. Doree visits Lloyd in prison several times and is on the bus on her way to see him when she witnesses a single vehicle traffic accident. Her bus stops and Doree successfully revivies the teen-aged driver with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Doree decides she doesn’t need to continue on to the prison and waits with the revived driver for the ambulance. Although Lloyd has been in prison for months, Doree isn’t liberated from Hades until now. Where Persephone’s liberation from Hades brings life to the world, Doree’s gift of life brings her own liberation.

Stupid Little Realization Stories

The term New Yorker Stories has become a generic one in my family for stories that may or may not have actually been printed in the New Yorker magazine, but that start and end at apparently arbitrary points and vary in tone from glum to worse.

One weekend last spring I was re-reading Alice Munro’s collection of short stories, Too Much Happiness, in preparation for a group discussion. When I took a break my wife asked me what the stories were like. After I described one she said, “Oh, you mean they’re New Yorker Stories.”

Later that same weekend I ran across the below from Allison Lurie’s review of Julian Barnes’ latest in the NYRB:

“Literary fiction, however, now tends to conform to Tom Stoppard’s addition to Miss Prism’s Rule, first stated in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966): “The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means.” The scale of the tragedy, of course, varies widely. When we begin a story by a known and admired writer in a known and admired journal, we do not always expect a major disaster, but we know that something unpleasant is going to happen to the main characters, and/or that they will end up understanding something unpleasant about themselves, their friends or family, or the world in general. (Years ago, a Harvard student called Speed Lamkin described the latter tales to me as “stupid little realization stories.”)”

This seemed to be a most satisfactory description of the New Yorker Story.   The only opportunity for improvement would be to replace the phrase “known and admired journal” with some more explicit reference to the New Yorker.